Ska legends Bad Manners are out and about again this month, veteran vocalist Buster Bloodvessel and his band bringing their stage prowess and hits catalogue to 27 UK venues, allowing himself just five nights off before New Year’s Day’s Glasgow finale.
Forming the band that became Bad Manners with friends from Woodberry Down Comprehensive School, Finsbury Park, North London, in the mid-1970s, they became live favourites on their patch before taking that next step, true entertainers of the ska scene, Buster known for his energetic live antics. Rising to prominence during the late-‘70s ska revival, they gained wider exposure with help from 2-Tone Records package tours and their appearance on live documentary Dance Craze.
Born Douglas Woods to a single mum in Stoke Newington in 1958 (his surname changed to Trendle after adoption by a great-aunt of that name), Buster took his stage name from Ivor Cutler’s bus conductor character in The Beatles’ 1967 Magical Mystery Tour film.
Bad Manners signed to Magnet Records in 1980, scraping into the UK top 30 straight away with debut single ‘Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu’, a cover of a Dickie Doo and the Dont’s rock’n’roll song released the year Buster was born, follow-up ‘Lip Up Fatty’ making it to No.15 before ‘Special Brew’ reached No.3, a highly successful first year finishing with ’Lorraine’ reaching No.21, with both debut LP Ska ‘n’ B and rapid follow-up Loonee Tunes each going top-40.
Their 10 UK top-40 singles also included 1981 top-40 showings with ‘Just a Feeling’, ‘Can Can’, ‘Walking in the Sunshine’, ‘Buona Sera’, alongside third LP, Gosh, it’s … Bad Manners, while their cover of Millie’s ‘My Girl Lollipop’ reached No.9 in the summer of 1982, the band spending more than 100 weeks in the singles charts in those first three years.
And 40 years later, they’re still going strong. At least, Buster and his current Bad Manners line-up are, now deep into their fifth decade, with no sign of stopping, having relentlessly toured the UK and mainland Europe, America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. And as I put it to the main man when we spoke, he hardly seems to have been off the road down the years.
“We have done more than most, I must admit! But during the Covid period – which killed every band that was – I’ve never been so lazy in my life.”
Did that enforced break not suit you, give you a chance to take stock?
“No! I couldn’t stand it. I grew a beard and long hair, and I just wasn’t me. When people saw me, they said, ‘Why are you like this?’ I said, ‘Really, I’m on strike. Until I can do another gig, I’m not going to shave my head.”
Did the confidence come back straightaway afterwards?
“Yeah, once you’ve got the touch … I’ve been doing it that long.”
True enough, but even the most prolific of acts started over-thinking it all, worrying that they might not be capable of performing again.
“Well, that crosses your mind. But once you’re actually in front of an audience, that’s your job, that’s what you do, and you fall back into it.”
You certainly bring the party, wherever you play. And I don’t think anyone could accuse you of giving less than 100%. I guess you still get your kicks from live music.
“Oh, absolutely, and not just my own music. Seeing bands live still does do it for me. And I love performing. It’s in my blood.”
So where’s home these days? North London? Hertfordshire?
“I’m actually in Bulgaria.”
Blimey, is this going to cost me? Is that where I’m calling you?
“No, you’re calling me in West London. I’ve got a houseboat, but I live in Bulgaria.”
Why Bulgaria? How did that come about?
“It’s cheap, there are nice people there, lots of sunshine. It’s such a great place, and the pound goes a long way there.”
Clearly still walking in the sunshine then. Is Sofia home, or are you closer to the sea?
Ah, wrong on both counts (that’s around three and a half hours west by car from the capital, my online map meister tells me).
“It’s in the centre, and it was their second capital. It’s surrounded by castles, and it’s just a wonderful place.”
So you’re not a regular down at Hartsdown Park these days, watching The Gate (Buster was the main sponsor of Margate FC in the 1990s and once owned a hotel in the Kent resort called Fatty Towers, specifically catering for larger customers, its features including extra-large beds and baths, closing in 1998 when he moved back to London)?
“Not anymore. Unfortunately, not. I used to enjoy them times.”
Are you watching football out in Bulgaria instead?
“Erm, at this moment, I’m watching Mexico versus Poland (in the World Cup). But I don’t go to any football games in Bulgaria. I follow my Arsenal.”
So to speak.
“Well, we’ve had a good season this year, so far.”
It certainly seems that way. And what became of your old houseboat in Hackney (Buster licensed the Blue Beat Records name and logo in 1988, running the label from there for a couple of years)?
“Oh, that was a long time ago. It got put back onto the river. It was in my back garden for a long time, then got put back onto the river after a couple of years, I wasn’t on it often, and it sprang a leak and sank, so they had to come along, take it out the water, the cost of that enough to have it cut up. Not a very good ending, unfortunately.”
That’s sad. I bet that had character.
“It did, and we ran all the various labels and bits and pieces from it.”
You were a bit of an entrepreneur in those days.
“I was. I enjoyed mucking about with records.”
When you mentioned the houseboat springing a leak, I had The Clash in my head, Joe Strummer having no fear, ‘London is drowning, and I live by the river’.
Do you wince a little at the novelty favourites label your publicists tend to use, or is that part of what you’ve always been about? There’s never been any pretence, it seems.
“No, not really. I think it’s extremely hard to be able to be put in that bracket and survive for a long period, because it’s almost the kiss of death when you get that tag around your neck. But I don’t mind. If people want to think of us as a novelty band, so be it.
“We are a hard band to beat live. I don’t know many bands who can compete with us live. And we’ve played with them all. Some of these great bands you see, we slaughter them on stage.”
Before calling you, I glanced back at a 2004 festive edition of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the contestants – including Noddy Holder and Phill Jupitus – having to guess your Christmas covers from the intros. I was howling at that, but at the same time admiring the power of your brass section. There’s comedy value, but you’re clearly a tight, hard-working band.
“Well, I suppose the only other band we’ve sort of aimed at that is similar to us would be somebody like the Bonzos, even though we carry more an element of pop. It was more about albums with them.”
As I’m writing a version of this feature-interview primarily for a North West newspaper, are there past performances around Lancashire, Manchester or Liverpool that spring to mind when venues are confirmed on your tours?
“It’s always good for us because of the scooterist connection up in that part of the world. They stick together, and they’ve stuck with us for many years, so I really like playing that area. Manchester, I’ve always had great times going out to dirty old pubs in Salford. It’s a shame they’re almost turning trendy … but not the ones I go to!”
You broke through with the ska revival, but it wasn’t a bandwagon jumping exercise. That love of Blue Beat, ska and reggae was always important to you.
“Very much so. From a very early age, and when we started it was definitely ska and rhythm ‘n’ blues. That’s what we based our style of music on.”
Who turned you on to that? Or was that what you were hearing around your manor?
“It was the area I came from. I come from a Black area, so listening to ska and reggae was easy for me. Then there was the R’n’B connection, which was more listened to by white kids. I enjoyed both, so I wanted to play both. I still liked all the commercial things like Slade though, so always had an ear for that too.”
You tend to prove that with the way you crossed over, not least those early ‘80s hits.
“Yeah, quite a lot of them.”
When you left school in the mid-’70s, was it always going to be a career in music and performance for you? Were there ever any real-world day jobs?
“There were. My first job was as a photographer, and for my second I was relaying tracks on the railway, quite a strenuous job. But at school I got my friends together and said, ‘We’re going to have a band.’ People went off to learn their instrument, then we’d get together and play. We rehearsed first at school. It was in 1975 when we actually got our band together, even though ‘76 is when it officially said we were Bad Manners.
“There was a year before that where we were dreadful, but we were learning, and we enjoyed it. And my great idea at the time was that we would be the best of friends in school, then we could go out, play music in pubs, get paid, meet girls, eat food, drink beer …”
What’s not to love there? And was there a belief that you’d make it big?
“No, never. Not when we started. Definitely not. When we actually started to hit the charts, we couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable that they would take us seriously, that they’d allow things like ‘Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu’ into the charts … It then became the longest-lasting single that year, to come in and out of the charts. I was so knocked out.”
Was it a bit of a blur, particularly those big chart years from 1980-83, or did you have time to savour some of those mad times?
“Erm, not really a blur, I enjoyed everything that went on and still have good memories of everything that went on. And the band. And one day, when I go to prison, I will actually write a book. But until I go to prison, I won’t.”
Let’s hope you don’t then. There was a lot of touring from the start. Did you hone that stage show as you went along, or were you pretty much a fully-formed act from the start?
“I always believed that I just had to come crazy on stage and outdo everyone I’d seen, vocally. Singers I saw just standing there, I thought, ‘How crap is that?’ I just had to move, and being such a large person, it wasn’t the easiest, but it’s something I thought I’ve got to take to my advantage.”
The first version of the band came to an end around 1987 (after a less commercially successful second period, this time with Portrait Records, ended), but you were soon back in the saddle.
“We never actually ended. It’s just that people left. We reformed straight away. First, I stole members from another band I had – Buster’s Allstars. I then swapped Buster’s Allstars for Bad Manners. I almost trained them up, so when people did finally leave, in ‘87, I thought it’s not such a bad thing, because I’ve got all these young lads who want to play.”
There was also a brief acting career around then too, including roles in 1987 films Out of Order and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and a part in TV drama Boon in 1990. Did you enjoy those days?
“Erm, you know, my whole existence was to be an actor, I felt. And stage was a very important part of it. I never got any acting parts on stage, but I got a lot of film parts. I don’t think I portrayed anything I wanted to in characters, so I’m very disappointed with my acting career. But never say die, because you never know. I might have to change career at some point, and acting I could do. I still think I’ve not achieved my acting ability.”
Do you remain in touch with the band from those early days?
“Occasionally we meet people, although it seems to be getting less and less as years go on. But no hard feelings with anybody – people just move on. I’ve always respected that, and I encourage my musicians to go off and do whatever they want with whoever they want. To me, it’s like trapping a bird. You can’t do it. I find it’s very important that musicians do what they want to do. I certainly get to be doing what I want to do.”
In fact, just before I went to press, I read the sad news that that original Bad Manners harmonica player Winston Bazoomies, aka Alan Sayag, passed away this week, Buster paying tribute to a ‘complete one-off and unmistakable sound.’
Who’s in the band on this tour? And have they been on board for quite a while?
“Most people have been in the band quite a while. I mean, it’s a long list – you really want me to go through them? There’s an A-team, a B-team, and a C-team.”
How many players are we talking?
“I would say 30 players. Maybe more, maybe 35. And I would say most have been about Bad Manners at some point in some position in the last 10 to 15 years. And that doesn’t include abroad. There’s a Japanese Bad Manners, an Australian Bad Manners, an American Bad Manners, a South American Bad Manners … there’s a lot of Bad Manners – ha ha!”
I’m guessing they’re not all standing by the phone waiting for your call.
“They are! They drop everything when I want them to. Because they know it’s such a great gig for them. They have fun, and never is there an argument or quarrel in Bad Manners. Because I’m the money and I look after them all, I don’t allow that to happen. If I see any signs of it, I’m on it. I’ll encourage them to go out and fight each other if they have to. We don’t want bad feeling in the band.”
Do close friends and family still know you as Doug or Douglas, or is that only when you’ve been naughty?
“No, no, no … well, I’m always naughty. But most people still call me Doug … and many people call me Buster – that’s all I’ll ever be known as in the public eye.”
Is there a difference between Buster and Doug? Is it a persona?
“Absolutely. Once he’s on stage, he’s a completely different character.”
Before I let you go, none of us can take anything for granted, not least after these last few years of the pandemic, but you’re not so far off 50 years in music now. Is that a goal to reach? You’ve had a few run-ins with your health (Buster has struggled with morbid obesity and underwent laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery in 2004, his weight dropping from 31 to 13 stone, and in early 2001 fell seriously ill during a concert in Perugia, Italy. What’s more, a recent date in Dublin was cancelled – now rescheduled for late January – late on, Buster having to go into hospital with issues relating to his heart, kept in overnight). Is there a finish line as far as you’re concerned, or will you carry on, instinctively knowing when it’s time to stop?
“There’s definitely not a finish line, but 50 years has been a goal for quite a few years. Passing the 30-year mark, I thought, ‘How long is this going to carry on? And are people still gonna want this?’ But they do, and new markets are still opening for us.
“And I can’t wait for next year, because I believe there are more new markets opening …”
Bad Manners’ December 2022 UK tour dates: Thursday 1 – Komedia, Bath; Friday 2 – Engine Rooms, Southampton; Saturday 3 – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (sold out); Friday 9 – Academy 2, Manchester; Thursday 15 – Chinnerys, Southend (sold out); Saturday 17 – Electric, Brixton; Wednesday 21 – Arts Club, Liverpool; Thursday 22 – Rock City, Nottingham. Tickets on sale here.